Odd sights at PMQs today. Theresa May wore a dark blue outfit covered in an outbreak of Pollock-esque dots, as if she’d just arrived from a paintballing contest.
Jeremy Corbyn looked angry, knackered and distressed. His scarlet tie was all askew and his eyes appeared shadowed and hollow. Why so fatigued? Yesterday he was in Brighton, he told us, addressing the Fire Brigades Union, ‘who work hard to keep us all safe.’ (Strike-days excluded). It’s rumoured that Corbyn has been up late at night flogging seats for Labour Live, the party’s summer rally on June 16. He’s the headline act. Tickets are £35. A discount of a fiver is available to ‘unwaged applicants’, such as the interns recently invited by Chuka Umunna to work for free in his office. Sales are said to be sluggish. Warm-up man Owen Jones has been told to expect ‘the few not the many’.
Corbyn did all right today. His big idea was get May to answer a question. She wouldn’t. And though he succeeded in pointing this out, he didn’t turn her weakness into a victory. At issue was the ‘ambitious, precise and detailed’ white paper on Brexit. May promised it. But when, Corbyn asked, will it be published?
It will be published, said May.
When will it be published? pressed Corbyn.
It will be published.
It was that kind of exchange. Corbyn tried to yank open a few Tory splits by floating an easy-peasy question at her. ‘Is it her plan to leave the EU in March 2019 and to complete the transition by December 2020?’
‘Yes,’ she said, sitting down. Corbyn pinged straight back up again.
‘I look at the faces behind her, and they’re not all at one on this.’
Delighted Labour cheers rang out across the benches. It was an amazing breakthrough. Finally, their leader was thinking on his feet. On a cold white screen, his words seem unremarkable but this soundbite was the closest he has ever come to a lightening riposte. Worth savouring. Years may pass before the next bolt strikes.
The SNP’s Ian Blackford came to the house supremely prepared. And supremely unprepared. He’d found a list of civil emergencies which officials are looking at in case of a no-deal Brexit. He recited these possible crises to the prime minister and he began with ‘supermarkets running out of food.’ Ian Blackford, it is plain, enjoys his dinner almost as much as his tailor enjoys letting out his trousers. No sooner had he mentioned food shortages than the entire house convulsed with mirth. It was rather cruel – yet tragically hilarious. The gales of laughter might have flattened a less substantial figure. Blackford stood unmoved.
The Plaid Cymru leader, Liz Saville Roberts, seems convinced that Brexit will push her near-starving electorate over the edge. It’s always strange to see Welsh MPs characterise the country as a kind of failed state where cave-dwellers living on scrumped apples represent the height of social aspiration. Trembling with neo-Dickensian fury, she declared that every family in Wales had already lost £900 to Brexit.
‘How much poorer will families become while they [the Tories and Labour] indulge in fantasy politics.’
Her last four words were delivered with such an over-ripe Wagnerian crescendo that the house responded with catcalls of mockery. ‘Ooh,’ they sang primly, on a rising note. ‘OoohHHH!’ The chamber turned momentarily into Kenneth Williams. ‘Ooh. Get her.’
May let the phrase ‘fantasy politics’ ricochet straight back to its origin. ‘Talk to the people of Wales,’ she advised her assailant. ‘They voted to leave.’